In 2002, a craze swept America. Everywhere, people could speak of only one thing in the hushed tones of wonder. On every pair of lips was a single name, repeated over and over until the syllables lost all meaning: “Dunkleman.”
Dunklemania, as later historians termed it, was either a mighty tide sweeping the culture toward decline or it was the first step toward universal peace and enlightenment. It might have also been bullshit. For those few who missed it, Brian Dunkleman was the co-host, along with his lesser known colleague Ryan Seacrest, of big-budget karaoke contest American Idol. The photogenic winner and runner-up of the inaugural season were quickly wrapped up in legal red tape to appear in a tie-in film: 2003’s From Justin to Kelly.
Tagline: The tale of two American Idols
More Accurate Tagline: The embarrassing contractual obligations of two American Idols
Synopsis: Kelly (Kelly Clarkson — what, you thought it would be Justin?) sings and waits tables in an empty honky-tonk. Her only fan is redneck Luke, who wants to be more than fans. He definitely wants to hold her hand, and might even want to kiss. Anything more transgressive is out of this movie’s vocabulary. Kelly’s two friends Alexa and Kaya want Kelly to go with them to party in Fort Lauderdale over spring break. She agrees, despite the dialogue constantly reassuring me that if Kelly were any more chaste and pure she’d be saving Swiss children from Nazis.
Justin (Justin Guarini) is the leader of the “Pennsylvania Posse,” a group of Penn students who view spring break as a capitalist enterprise and presumably an escape from the nightmarish sexual abuse they suffer in school. The film subtly implies Justin is no longer the carefree player by having Justin state repeatedly to a variety of characters that he is no longer a carefree player. He does not have a song about it, because as stupid as that dialogue is, it is not stupid enough in the context of the film to require singing.
During a song and dance number on the sandy beach, Justin and Kelly have a spastic love connection. Justin senses that Kelly is not like the other girls. Maybe because she’s the only one not in a bikini? Maybe Justin has the extremely specific power of seeing into the hearts and souls of other American Idol finalists? Maybe because the writer cannot be expected to bridge the toxic anti-chemistry coursing between the leads? Justin gets Kelly’s number, but it is immediately destroyed. He manages to find Kelly’s BFF Alexa, who is a skinny blonde Paris Hilton type, down to the likely herpes simplex. Instead of giving him Kelly’s number, she gives him her own, and this is the entire conflict of the “plot.”
Meanwhile, their friends are having their own misadventures. Nerdy Eddie looks for a girl he met online, which is laughable because ha ha, he can use a computer. Kaya dates local waiter Carlos, and a few minor class-related differences inconvenience their budding relationship. Brandon is dogged all over the beaches by sexy Officer Cutler, who seems to exist only on the unfulfilled promise of a striptease.
Justin courts Kelly with dulcet text messages like, “IOU A BRGR U GAME?” Seriously, suck a dick, Shakespeare. You can’t compete with poetry like that. How could any woman ever resist such honeyed words? Alexa uses the phone to fuck with the both of them, sending Justin blow off texts ostensibly from Kelly and making Kelly think the broccoli headed man of her dreams won’t call. Why is Alexa doing this? Who knows? In a stunning third act reversal, she claims it’s out of jealousy, and makes amends by reuniting the two of them for a final kiss. Things work out for Kaya and Carlos, Eddie and his internet hookup (who looks closer to retirement than college), Brandon and Officer Cutler, and in the final scene, even villain Alexa seems to find a man.
Life-Changing Subtext: Friendship is more important than that friend betraying you for shits and giggles.
Defining Quote: “You’re the mayor of spring break, and she’s one-bonnet-shy-Amish.” — Alexa, to Justin. A lot of hay is made of Justin’s supposedly sordid past, but this guy couldn’t be more wholesome if he were perpetually guzzling milk and helping old ladies with their heavy parcels.
“We made a very nice connection in that bathroom.” — Justin, about Kelly. This is a close second, and the less explanation the better.
Standout Performance: I’ve seen better acting in grade school seizures.
What’s Wrong: Clint recently discussed (and I previously alluded to) the most ironclad rule of the musical, Voltaire’s pithy, “Anything too stupid to be said is sung.” What if literally everything in the movie is too stupid to be said, and yet somehow there’s still dialogue?
Clint also points out that a good musical has songs come from the environment depicted. What if that environment is chiefly has shitty music? So on one level From Justin to Kelly succeeds. On another, very real level, it fails harder than Todd Akin in an 8th grade health class.
Flash of Competence: Justin and Kelly have nice voices. Oh, and Kelly has cute hair.
Best Scenes: The film boldly opens with an attempt to alienate as many people as possible with a Kelly Clarkson cover of “Vacation.” Don’t fuck with the Go-Go’s, Kelly. Wiedlin alone own you in a coke-fueled pixie rage.
At their second date, Justin takes Kelly out on a boat, presumably because of the implication. They ignore each other to sing a song of longing. Which would work, if there were anything standing between them. There’s not. He likes her, she likes him, they’re both single. It’s just that he has the wrong phone number. Which wouldn’t even be a problem if they’d just, you know, turn the fuck around and talk to each other. God, some real conflict would be fantastic. Would it fucking kill this movie to introduce some villainous drug smugglers?
Transcendent Moment: In the midst of this non-conflict, Kelly’s stalker Luke shows up to try to win the woman of his dreams. He and Justin square off, ready to have a PG rated fistfight. That’s when someone apparently replaced the screenwriter’s Diet Coke with pure LSD.
Because a simple fight isn’t how these guys solve their differences. Nope. Time for a hovercraft fight. And it’s not even what you’re thinking, which is either two guys ram into each other on hovercrafts, or they use them like giant clubs. No, this turns into more of a carnival game, and the worst part is neither one gets molested by a toothless guy behind the tilt-a-whirl.
From Justin to Kelly is a failed attempt both to cash in on a successful series and groom these two as possible movie stars. Now it’s a curiosity that exists only to ensnare masochists like me.